October 23, 2010
At least once a week, I receive an email or phone call from someone asking if its okay to ride a mountain bike for their tour, whether it be a weekend trip or a cross-country tour. The quick answer to the question is absolutely, but here are some reasons behind the answer, and ways you can go about making it happen.
First off, not all riders have the privilege of owning multiple bikes, so if a mountain bike is all you have, it may be the best, and most realistic option available. Fortunately, the geometry of a mountain bike is pretty good for long distance touring, with a more upright riding position, and clearance for fenders and wider tires. Older mountain bikes often have long chain stays, which is great for keeping your heels clear of your rear panniers, however, newer race oriented mountain bikes are starting to shorten up the chain stays, which is claimed to improve traction when climbing. This may not create an issue, but something to be aware of, especially with smaller frame sizes. Most mountain bikes also have a very durable construction to hold up against the rigors of off-road riding.
There are a few aspects of a mountain bike that often make people second guess whether or not it can be suited for road riding. The first is that mountain bikes are usually setup with knobby tires. This is a quick and inexpensive fix, as there are a plethora of slick tire options available that will give you a quiet ride on the road with low rolling resistance.
As for hauling your load along, disc brakes can sometimes cause headaches when installing racks. If you have disc brakes and want to use racks, make sure you search out a disc specific touring rack for your wheel size (26" or 29er). Some examples would be the Old Man Mountain Cold Springs racks, as well as Topeak Tubular Explorer racks. If you don't want to take this route, you can always go with a trailer, but again, make sure that you choose a trailer with the proper wheel clearance.
Another mountain bike component that can cause some second guessing is the suspension fork. When riding on the road, front and/or rear suspension really isn't going to help you much, but it probably won't ruin your ride either. If you have a relatively newer suspension fork, you might be able to lock it out for a more rigid ride. Steel rigid forks are also fairly inexpensive, and can be quickly swapped out by your local shop.
As far as handlebars are concerned, sticking with flat bars can give you a more stable riding position, but can also limit the amount of potential hand positions available when compared to drop bars. There's no reason you can't swap drop bars for your flat bars, but this often means that you will have to find a new set of shifters and brake levers.
If your mountain bike has 26" wheels, don't in any way feel inferior to 700c road wheels. Depending on how the wheel is laced up, 26" wheels can offer great durability with their shorter spokes and wider rims. In fact, there are a fair amount of road touring bikes that have played around with smaller 26" and 650B wheel sizes to take advantage of their benefits in strength.
In the end, I'm not trying to insinuate that you should go out and purchase a new mountain bike for your next road tour. This is aimed at riders who currently have a mountain bike, and don't want to invest in a second bike for their upcoming trip.
TOURING GEAR AND TIPS is written by Joshua Tack of Adventure Cycling's member services department. It appears weekly, highlighting technical aspects of bicycle touring and advice to help better prepare you for the journey ahead.